Literary Mystery

The Dodgy Origins of Dorothy Parker’s Famous Martini Quote

How the renowned author and social critic broke the internet a half-century before the internet was invented with a drinking comment.

The Dodgy Origins of Dorothy Parker’s Famous Martini Quote

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

“I like to have a Martini,

Two at the very most.

After three I’m under the table,

After four I’m under my host.”

-Dorothy Parker

Without dispute, this is among of the most widely repeated sayings about drinking ever uttered. And with good reason—it speaks to universal experience, it’s visual, it offers the promise of drunken sex, and is admirably compact—it conveys an entire short story in a mere 130 characters (including both attribution and proper line breaks.) It’s a Twitter-length epic, written when only songbirds knew how to tweet.

When Allen Katz was casting about for a name for the gin made by his New York Distilling Co., he settled on Dorothy Parker Gin, because, well, duh. He’d read and admired her writings when in college, knew that she was a notable New Yorker (although not a “native New Yorker,” as she always rued—she was born in New Jersey, after all), and that she was fond of drink. “It pays homage to a woman who’s a great writer, and a damn good drinker,” Katz said.

On the back of his gin bottle is, naturally, Parker’s “Martini” quote. If you don’t have his gin at hand to consult, you can certainly find the quote elsewhere. Her quatrain has also appeared on cocktail napkins at the Algonquin Hotel, where Parker was a member of the famously witty Round Table. It was trotted out regularly in the 1980s by cabaret singers Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé. It’s on tee-shirts and posters and gets tweeted several time a week (thank you, 130 characters!). On GoodReads, her quote earns well over 1,000 “likes”—or ten times more than Parker’s next most popular quote, which is an anodyne and forgettable comment about books.

So enduring is her drinking quote that it makes me feel more than a little churlish to point out a simple fact: No evidence exists that Dorothy Parker ever said it or wrote it.

To paraphrase Shakespeare, I come not to bury Dorothy Parker. I come to praise her. In fact, that this quote is so widely attributed to her only burnishes her legend to an even brighter luster. It makes me respect her all the more.

I’m not the first to try to run down this quote with the hope that I would end up at Dorothy Parker’s doorstep. Troy Patterson dug into this for Slate several years ago. He managed to track down two comments that likely served as precursors, then somehow morphed together and attached itself to Parker, like a remora.

The first was from Bennett Cerf, a founder of Random House and a television personality. In his bestselling 1944 book, Try and Stop Me, he related the time someone asked Dorothy Parker how she’d enjoyed a cocktail party. Her response: “Enjoyed it? One more drink and I’d have been under the host.”

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The rest of the quatrain apparently first surfaced in 1959, in an undergraduate humor magazine at the University of Virginia:

“I wish I could drink like a lady. Two or three at the most. But two, and I’m under the table—And three, I’m under the host.”

Through some sort of celebrity alchemy, the two comments fused, with a fourth drink added, perhaps as a nod to Parker’s well-documented capacity for liquor. It was no doubt attributed to her in the 1960s and ‘70s, although I couldn’t find any concrete evidence of this. But by 2006, via means uncertain, it had become enshrined in the updated edition of The Portable Dorothy Parker, which had been in print in various editions since 1931.

From here, Parker’s quote made the leap into internet immortality.

The quote’s opaque origins, of course, makes it even more fascinating. You have to wonder: how did Dorothy Parker attract such great quotes without having to actually say them? In modern terms, it’s as if she somehow managed to get 100K likes for retweeting somebody else’s line.

Parker was a curiosity, famous in literary circles but not necessarily for her literature. While a respected writer of light verse and heavy short stories, and a critic of theater (and her fellow New Yorkers), her corpus was admittedly emaciated. “Dorothy Parker is one of the most fascinating phenomenon on the American scene,” wrote Cleveland Plain Dealer theater critic William F. McDermott in 1934. “She has achieved renown with less evidence of labor than any other professor of belles lettres I can think of. A few small volumes of little stories, a few very thin books of verse—these are the total bricks in the large masonry of her literary fame.”

Yet Parker was one of those elites famed more for what she said than what she wrote. (“A blend of Little Nell and Lady MacBeth,” wrote fellow Round Tabler, Alexander Wollcott.) She wasn’t as regular as the other regulars at the Round Table, but when she was present her bon mots were captured and repeated endlessly by her fellows, securing her fame as the wielder of a verbal rapier. (“A girl’s best friend is her mutter,” she once said.) She was the George Takei of her generation, someone whose offhand wit eclipsed her other accomplishments.

Being famous for being droll had its burdens. People expected more than a bland, casual comment about canapés. They wanted it filleted and shredded. “Why, it got so bad,” Parker told the Paris Review in 1956, “that they began to laugh before I opened my mouth.” 

The expectations of her fans grew so elevated that they bestowed upon her almost any clever saying that seemed to fit, whether she uttered it or not. She was noted for saying things, and thus notable sayings gravitated to her and stuck, like burrs to socks. “One of the penalties of having made bright remarks,” noted another writer, commenting about Parker in 1939, is that “a thousand other inventions, clever, obscene and wholly apocryphal, are always being ascribed to the same helpless author.”

“Did you hear what Dorothy Parker said is the commonest form of introducing a funny story in many widely scattered parlors,” the critic McDermott of the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote. “Stories and jests attach themselves to people whom they are supposed to fit.” And the journalist, playwright and director George S. Kaufman once lamented, “everything I’ve ever said will be credited to Dorothy Parker.”

Parker wasn’t the only quote magnet of her era. Others included Parker’s friend and fellow Round Table regular Robert Benchley, the author who putatively uttered another justifiably famous drinking line: “Why don’t you get out of that wet coat and into a dry Martini?”

Benchley actually did say this in a movie—to Ginger Rogers in “The Major and The Minor” in 1942. Director Billy Wilder often said that the line wasn’t in the script, but ad-libbed by Benchley. In turn, Benchley always credited his friend, the actor Charles Butterworth, who said it in a Mae West-written movie several years earlier. Never mind. Benchley was the quote magnet, not Butterworth, and so he’s always credited with the line.

Parker spent her later years deflating stories of her wit and denying having said this or that. “She Didn’t Say Them,” was the headline of a 1941 newspaper profile, when she was 48 years old. She told her interviewer that fewer than one percent of the wisecracks attributed to her had actually originated in her mind.

As she grew older and more reclusive, Parker—twice married, now divorced, no children—lived alone in a New York hotel. She refused to learn how to cook, said her literary executor Lillian Hellman, who also reported that she’d developed “an amazing interest in mortuary magazines” and became “a great authority on embalming fluids.”

She died in 1967, alone in her hotel room. “Dorothy Parker, 73, Dies; Noted for Sardonic Wit,” was the headline of one obituary. This same obit went on to note that she “lived to overhear recitals of Dorothy Parker anecdotes while she herself was forgotten.”

Kevin Fitzpatrick, a chronicler of Dorothy Parker’s years in New York, wrote, “of all the Round Table members, she has become the most successful in death.” Indeed, her magnetism for quotes remains undiminished. She’s often cited as the source for the line, “The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.” Yet it’s well established that this was said by comedian and pianist Oscar Levant, who had long been credited with it. But sometime in the early 2000s, through some dimly understood posthumous magnetism, the saying migrated to Parker and muckled on to her, and now regularly surfaces as an oft-tweeted and much-Instagrammed meme.

Allen Katz, the maker of Dorothy Parker Gin, admits that the Martini poem is certainly spurious. He acknowledges this, sort of, by ensuring the lines on his gin label appears without the definitive quotation marks.

“I would call it an attribution,” he says. “It can’t be firmly or factually linked to her with full confidence.”